Runaways from Public Care Leave Agencies Lost

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Burlington, Vt.—Could youth workers have saved chronic runaway Christal Jones?

She was a headache familiar to many agencies that house kids who are wards of the state: a “child in need of supervision” who refused to be supervised; in and out of foster homes and substance abuse programs; persistent runaway; small-time thief; occasional prostitute.

Then, dead.

Jones’ body was discovered last year in a Bronx apartment allegedly used to run a prostitution ring. The 16-year-old was supposed to be in an independent living program run by the nonprofit Spectrum Youth & Family Services.

Her death set off a debate here over a question that has perplexed youth workers around the country: how to deal with kids who repeatedly run from public care.

When one of those youths dies, the typical answer has been, “Boost security.” In Vermont, the state plans to install door alarms at residential youth facilities and create a secure facility for some youths at risk of running. In Massachusetts, lawmakers introduced legislation last year to create runaway lock-ups after two girls who fled the Department of Social Services (DSS) were found dead. Washington state has created nine lock-ups for chronic runaways – prompting the U.S. Justice Department to withhold funds from several Washington counties, saying the lock-ups violate the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

But some – such as Harry Wilson, associate commissioner of the U.S. Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) – contend that rather than tightening the security of their buildings, agencies can virtually “truancy-proof” themselves through program changes.

Starr Commonwealth in Michigan (Wilson’s former employer) reports reducing runaways from 168 a year to five over a 20-year period, largely by empowering the youths and improving staff relationships with them. Outside Cleveland, Bellefaire Jewish Children’s Bureau says runaways have dropped from 90 a month to three, and credits a staff overhaul that brought in people with higher academic and clinical credentials.

All of these agencies are grappling with a significant but difficult-to-quantify phenomenon. A 1991 study by the National Association of Social Workers found that more than 20 percent of youths in homeless shelters came from foster or group homes. The federal government estimates that more than 5,000 kids leave foster care each year simply by running away (accounting for 2 percent of all those who leave). Operators of the runaway lock-ups in Washington state estimate that 27 percent of the youths fled public care facilities. (It’s impossible to tell how many repeat runaways are counted more than once.)

The Jones case highlights the risk: Prosecutors said the leader of a drug and prostitution ring in New York visited Vermont with promises of love and money to lure girls living in foster homes and state-run shelters. “These guys were up here, allegedly, basically going to places where there were troubled girls,” Gov. Howard Dean later told reporters.

Solutions are elusive because these chronic runaways often fall into what FYSB calls “a netherworld between prevention and juvenile detention”: They usually cannot be locked up because they’re not accused of crimes, they generally can’t be committed to mental facilities because they haven’t hurt anyone, but they’re so rebellious and distrustful of adults that they repeatedly put themselves at risk by running off.

And when one of them gets hurt or killed, youth-serving agencies face a barrage of demands to do something, including locking the kids up. “It only takes one headline to set off three years of visceral legislation and regulatory action,” says Joy Midman, director of the National Association of Psychiatric Treatment Centers for Children.

The Lock-up Movement

A Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS) caseworker left 14-year-old Kelly Hackcock alone at the juvenile court one day last April for just a minute – long enough for the girl to disappear. Within 24 hours she was dead.

Her body was found buried in New Hampshire. Days later another chronic runaway from the Massachusetts DSS, a 17-year-old girl, was also found dead. DSS Commissioner Jeffrey Lock proposed a change in state law to allow short-term lock-ups of repeat runaways. Bills were introduced in the state House and Senate to create such lock-ups for runaway CHINS – Children in Need of Services.

Locke became a judge and the legislation lies dormant. The DSS is trying to reduce the number of runaways (or find runaways faster) by improving communication among service providers, police and judges, and issuing guidelines (not yet finalized) for youth agencies on how to stop kids from fleeing and how to respond when they do. Vermont announced several measures in January to do the same, as calls for lock-ups have faded. (See sidebar.)

There’s been no fading in Washington state, where legislators voted to create runaway lock-ups in 1995 after the murder of a 13-year-old girl who’d fled her adoptive home. The state has nine locked Crisis Residential Centers (total beds: 66), where runaway youth are held for up to five days while their condition and treatment needs are assessed.

Five of the lock-ups are run by community-based organizations (CBOs), such as Daybreak of Spokane, a substance abuse program that focuses on youth and families.

The federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act prohibits locking up status offenders. But the Department of Justice (DOJ) decided that so many kids escaped from Washington’s CBO-run lock-ups that they didn’t qualify as locked facilities.
Ten to 15 percent of the kids in the lock-ups run by Washington’s CBOs escape, says Program Administrator James Mowrey. For safety reasons, he says, the doors have time-release mechanisms, so “a kid can push on a door for 15 seconds and it opens.”

But the state has opened four lock-ups in county juvenile detention centers, where there are no time-release mechanisms; no runaways have fled. The DOJ has ruled that those are lock-ups, and has told those counties that they will lose their federal Title V delinquency prevention funds this year, Mowrey says.

‘Our Angriest Kids’

Even those who generally oppose runaway lock-ups say that some chronic runaways need to be held temporarily for assessment and treatment referrals.

Charlie Chelan, executive director of Community Youth Services in Olympia, Wash., told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer two years ago that 10 to 15 percent of chronic runners need locked residential treatment programs. In Massachusetts, a statewide association of juvenile justice professionals and organizations, Citizens for Juvenile Justice, testified in favor of legislation to let judges order some chronic runaways to be held for a short time for assessment and treatment.

“You can’t lock them up” under current law, “but you have children who are really engaging in risky behavior,” says Lael E. H. Chester, executive director of the group.

Without a lock-up option for status offenders, Chester says, the “inclination” among some judges “is to find that they’ve also committed some kind of criminal offense and to put them in the juvenile justice system. … Here’s a kid who desperately needs social services, and instead of that they’re looking at jail time for a drug offense or prostitution or shoplifting.”

Then there’s the common judicial tactic of giving a status offender an order, such as going to school or getting drug abuse counseling. The juvenile runs again, doesn’t go to school or treatment, is held in contempt and is sent to juvenile detention.

“You have kids who end up in the delinquency system when they really should be in the child welfare system,” says Katina Ancar, staff attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, based in Oakland. “Judges sometimes feel this is the best place they can be. They’re safer. They won’t run. That doesn’t mean that they’re getting better services.”

Those who’ve fled public care are often the most resistant to adult help, some youth workers say. The director of one of the CBO-run lock-ups in Washington told the Post-Intelligencer, “Those are our angriest kids because they feel they have no hope,” having been passed around foster care homes or other facilities.

As the escapes from the Washington facilities shows, locks don’t stop all of them anyway. At Bellefaire in Shaker Heights, Ohio, one of the cottages (for youths with severe mental health problems) is locked – but Executive Director Adam G. Jacobs says kids get out by hitting the fire alarm, which makes the doors pop open 38 seconds later.

“If somebody is bent on running,” Jacobs says, “they’re gonna run.” The trick is reducing their desire to run, which requires understanding their motives.

Running from Chaos

“Last night we had one of our girls run away,” says Bob Schuppel, director of residential treatment at Bellefaire, as he discusses the issue in April. The girl “had been dong well until an anniversary” of a traumatic event in her life. She fled, but 10 minutes later called and said, “Here’s where I am; come and get me.”

“What she was running from wasn’t the staff, it was her issues that she had to work through,” Schuppel says.

Staff who work with youth who’ve run from public care say one of the most common triggers is a traumatic event – such as an upcoming court date or a meeting with a biological parent. Here are other key factors:

Nature of the population: The kids in public care have already been traumatized – removed from their families, abused, orphaned, suffering from mental illness. “You’re dealing by and large with kids who’ve been traumatized and abused, and they’re going to be very mistrustful of adults, because they’ve been abused by the adults who are supposed to care for them,” says Genny Price, associate director of Boston’s street savvy Bridge Over Troubled Waters.

Instability: Moving between foster care facilities or other institutions leaves kids feeling rootless, and often they just want to flee back to their old neighborhoods. “You have children who haven’t been able to stay in touch with their friends and their families. They’re changing schools. It’s really reasonable to see why kids might want to run,” Ancar says.

Powerlessness: “They don’t have any sense of input or any control over the process by which these very crucial decisions about their lives are being made,” Ancar says. “Very often those kids haven’t met their social workers, they may not have met their guardian ad litem, may not have met with their attorney. They don’t have a sense of the people who are pulling the strings in their lives.

“In making that decision to run, they’re getting some control.”

Ever-changing adults: Youths who move among different facilities often don’t form long-term bonds with any youth worker. “Even if you do get a good social worker, you learn those social workers aren’t gonna to be there for very long,” Ancar says. “It’s scary. You find someone you can hold onto, and that person leaves.”

At Bellefaire, Jacobs saw two main reasons for the constant staff turnover: salaries (starting pay was $12,000 a year), and “things were out of control. People don’t like to work in chaotic environments. Staff were getting hurt as well as kids. People would leave because they didn’t like to get hurt.”

Untrained staff: Staff are generally untrained in assessing incoming runaways and counseling them, says Elizabeth Gomez, executive director of the Los Angeles Youth Network, which provides shelter and other services to runaway and homeless youth. “They need training in “crisis intervention, conflict resolution, leaving your ego at the door. There’s a very limited amount of professional care.”

No Choices: “A lot of times when you’re in the middle of a crisis situation with a student, the reason they flee is that they don’t see any other way out of the situation,” says Wilson of FYSB, former dean of Starr Commonwealth’s Montcalm School for troubled adolescents in Michigan. “There’s a fight or flight response.”

Several agencies have found ways to counteract these forces. Some have significantly reduced runaways. (See sidebar.) Wilson says that when a youth flees, the program needs to do a “gut check,” looking at factors such as its physical and emotional safety, how much youth are listened to, and the extent to which youth are involved in meaningful work.

“If you give kids a reason to stay, they’ll stay,” says Greg Hooson, associate director of the Delinquent Residential Program at Starr Commonwealth, in Albion, Mich.

Others say that some kids, like Jones in Vermont, will run no matter what. State Sen. Richard Sears (D-Bennington), who raises the issue of creating a lock-up for wards of the state who practice “very dangerous behavior,” says, “There isn’t anything you can do to prevent a situation like Christal Jones.”

Amy Bracken contributed to this report. Patrick Boyle can be reached at


Katina Ancar
National Center for Youth Law
405 14th St., 15th Fl.
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 835-8098

Greg Hooson
Starr Commonwealth
13725 Starr Commonwealth Rd.
Albion, MI 49224
(517) 629-5591

Adam G. Jacobs, Executive Director
Bellefaire Jewish Children’s Bureau
22001 Fairmount Blvd.
Shaker Heights, OH 44118
(216) 932-2800

Will Rowe, Executive Director
Spectrum Youth & Family Services
31 Elmwood Ave.
Burlington, VT 05401
(802) 864-7423

Harry Wilson, Associate Commissioner
U.S. Family and Youth Services Bureau
330 C St. SW
Suite 2038
Washington, DC 20447
(202) 205-8102

Coverage of the Christal Jones murder and itsramifications:

Dealing With Runaways: Strategies From the Field

Harry Wilson, associate commissioner of the U.S. Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB), asserts that an agency can “truancy-proof” itself: “When youth are supported with safe environments, meaningful relationships with adults, a sense of belonging and ownership, opportunities to grow and learn, a vision for the future along with a cultural and personal identity, it’s a good bet that they will stick around to see how things turn out.”

Here is a look at some agencies that have tried:

Bellefaire Jewish Children’s Bureau

Shaker Heights, Ohio

A new administration made sweeping staff changes when it arrived six years ago, and one result is a drastic reduction in reported runaway incidents: from an astonishing 90 a month (among about 80 youths living there) to three.

Bellefaire now houses about 50 youths in four cottages sitting on 32 acres in the Cleveland suburbs. Youths come here along a variety of paths, including child protective services and juvenile court.

If they want to leave, there’s a bus stop 50 yards outside the entrance, says Executive Director Adam G. Jacobs.
Perhaps the most drastic changes involved who gets hired for the approximately 100 positions in the agency’s residential program. Six years ago, the supervisors at Bellefaire “rarely had college degrees,” says Bob Schuppel, director of residential treatment. “If they did, they were mostly bachelor’s degrees.” The agency set out to hire only people with degrees, mostly master’s (required now for cottage supervisors) and including Ph.D.s.

Once hired, staff find that the agency works to keep them. The efforts include tuition assistance and flexible hours for staff to pursue higher degrees, on-site day care, and higher salaries. Entry-level pay is now $20,000, Jacobs says, “and you go up real quickly from there,” to the “high 50s” for some supervisors.

One result: greater staff stability, which helps staff build more solid relationships with the youths and deliver more consistent care. The educational backgrounds and experience of the staff have helped the agency improve its assessment of youths at intake, its design of treatment plans for each one (“When I came over I saw a lot of cookie cutter treatment plans,” Schuppel says) and the depth of clinical discussions among staff in assessing the progress of each youth.

Starr Commonwealth
Albion, Mich.
FYSB’s Wilson saw first-hand how program changes can reduce runaways. He helped to run a residential treatment program at Starr Commonwealth that reduced runaways from 168 in 1979 down to 63 in 1989, then down to five in 1999.

One main reason, he says: empowering youths.

Most of the boys (ages 11-18) in Starr’s Delinquent Residential Program (DRP) come through court referrals, mostly for delinquency, truancy and minor crimes such as auto theft.

Fleeing isn’t easy: The DRP cottages (about 12 boys each) and other Starr programs sit on 360 acres, about five miles from the town of Albion.

Starr puts significant responsibility on the youths to help each other through staff-supervised groups. “One big key is to have youths in an assistance position,” making sure kids who appear likely to run know that there are other options, Wilson says.
“The kids are ultimately responsible for helping each other and giving each other reasons to stay in the program and work through the problems,” says Greg Hooson, associate director of the DRP.

Starr also focuses on building relationships between staff and youth. “I need to create an environment within my group and establish a relationship that this kid wants to connect with me and stay here, and give him a reason to stay,” Hooson says.
Sometimes the solution is surprisingly practical, such as helping a youth who works send money home to his family, so he doesn’t feel he has to run home to help the household.

The agency also pays particular attention to kids when potentially traumatic events approach, like a court date or the anniversary of the day they were taken from their homes.

“You give kids a reason to stay and want to change, and become invested in themselves,” Hooson says.

Los Angeles Youth Network

Los Angeles

The agency began operating an existing crisis shelter (six beds) and transitional living program (12 beds) about two years ago, and quickly made some changes. Executive Director Elizabeth Gomez says the program focuses more on “positive reinforcement” rather than punishment for bad behavior, including running away, and is more flexible with kids who want to walk out the door.

“Let’s say a kid is on level one, which means he can’t go outside by himself,” Gomez says. “Yet this kid needs a timeout or he’s gonna explode.” Staff may let him step outside alone for a short time. The agency also changed a long-standing shelter rule that
runaways could not return to the shelter.

As a result, she says, more kids are designated runaway now (AWOL for at least four hours), but they almost always come back. For this population, she says, that’s a success.

KEY Program
Framingham, Mass.

On the opposite coast, the KEY Program takes the opposite view, says President Bill Lyttle. Staff work at establishing good, trusting relationships with the youths, and runaways are rare. But “if it gets to the point where a kid wants to leave, we would literally put ourselves in the door. If it results in a physical restraint, that’s the attitude we would take,” he says.

“If they did leave the building, we would chase after them,” although the staff would not physically haul them back.

While Lyttle says the staff might sometimes allow a kid they can trust to leave for “a couple of hours,” he says, “It’s best to have a culture in your organization that running is not an acceptable behavior.”

Alarming Reaction
Girl’s Death Prompts Changes at Vermont Agencies

By Amy Bracken

Burlington, Vt.

To the question of whether youth workers could have saved Christal Jones, youth workers here generally answer, “No.”

By and large, they feel they’re doing all they can for kids in state care. Some kids, they say, will run no matter what you do.
The Jones murder illustrates how tragedy can befall even a youth agency that is hailed as a “model program,” and how difficult it is to reduce the number of runaways from public care.

Youth agencies have resisted demands from some lawmakers and news media to lock up certain chronic runaways, saying it won’t help with the real issues facing the youths. At Spectrum Youth & Family Services, from where Jones ran away, staffer Gregg Carlo characterizes the reaction of youth workers when they hear “lockdown” by tensing his shoulders and thrusting out his hands as if fending off an attack.

State officials hope to create a staff-secure facility for drug-abusing runaways, and recently announced new measures, such as alarm systems and better drug abuse counseling, to help youth residential programs cut down on runaways. Is it enough?

Prostitution Ring

Jones entered the child welfare system in 1996 as a child in need of supervision after a fight at home, according to the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS). She was 11. She spent much of the next five years bouncing between foster homes and residential treatment programs (including those for substance abuse), from which she ran at least 12 times, according to the SRS. She was charged with several crimes, including car theft and threatening other girls with a knife. For a while in 1999 she was placed in the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, which holds youths from ages 10 to 18 for up to 60 days.

After Jones was found dead in January 2001, an SRS evaluation concluded that the department had done all it could for her.
But a later evaluation by investigators appointed by the governor reported that SRS employees, other state workers and local police had suspected as early as May 2000 that Jones was involved in a drug and prostitution ring in New York City. Several other SRS runaways were part of the same ring, whose leader allegedly specialized in luring girls who lived in foster homes and state-run shelters.

Asked a few weeks after Jones’ death if the SRS had known she was in New York, a frustrated SRS official told the Burlington Free Press, “Look, we have 23 kids on runaway status today.”

Last spring, Jane Kitchell, secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Human Services (which encompasses the SRS) called for the creation of a small secure facility for the detention of 15- to 17-year-old runaways with substance abuse problems.

The 2002 state budget passed last year included appropriations ($225,000 plus federal matching funds) for an eight- to 10-bed, staff-secure facility for girls in SRS custody “who have a history of resisting treatment, multiple diagnoses, running away and noncompliant behavior.” Budget tightening in the midst of the economic downturn has scuttled those plans; now the human services agency is seeking funds to build a staff secure residential treatment program for adolescents. It has also created a process for social workers and administrators to keep better track of their runaway cases and review them on a weekly basis.

The Risks of Freedom

Will Rowe, executive director of Spectrum, believes that residential youth workers can try to reduce runaway rates by showing genuine concern and acceptance, but they can’t control whether a youth will run “because kids have the control.”

Kreig Pinkham, director of the Montpelier region of the Vermont Coalition for Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs (which includes 12 service providers), calls Spectrum “Vermont’s model program” because it provides fiercely independent teens with, well, a spectrum of choices.

Those services include emergency shelter, a crisis line, counseling, substance abuse assessment and treatment, foster care services, a domestic abuse educational project, educational support, employment services, an adolescent medical clinic, recreational activities and independent living services.

Many youths “are running away because they’re trying to express [their desire to] transition into adulthood,” says Pinkham.
That was one justification for a Vermont law passed in 1995 that declared SRS no longer responsible for “unmanageables” entering the system at age 16 or 17.

Steve Coulman, who ran Woodside for 14 years and is now resource unit program manager at SRS, thinks “the custodial power of the state” should be exercised “only when you know that a kid under 18 is in very serious danger of being dead through continued drug use or always allying with a group” that might harm the youth.

The liberal state doesn’t like lock-ups. The 30-bed Woodside is the state’s lone lock-up for juveniles. “We try to keep the numbers down,” says director Steve Entell, emphasizing that detention is only for serious delinquents.

Wide Open Alternatives

At Spectrum’s One Stop program in downtown Burlington (population: 39,000), most of the doors are literally wide open. Those that are closed have signs on them urging visitors to come in. Youth worker Carlo describes the drop-in center downstairs as a safe place for runaway and homeless youth because instead of hanging out on Church Street (Burlington’s main drag, one block away), where drug dealers and adult sexual predators hang out, they are in a place where there’s always a youth worker looking out for them.

Since the Jones incident, Carlo says, staff at Spectrum are more likely to try to know where kids are at all times.

What the state really needs is better treatment for chronic runaways with mental illness and substance abuse problems, says Con Hogan, the state’s former secretary of human services, who is running for governor.

In January, Gov. Howard Dean (D) announced several steps to improve services to “high-risk” youth, including installing alarms and security systems in residential youth facilities, training more staff at such facilities to be certified substance-abuse counselors, and adding after-care supervision.

One Morrisville SRS worker doesn’t see why there’s been so much publicity about Jones. Girls in Vermont state custody have been running away and prostituting themselves for years, she says. Among her examples: One girl was arrested in Chicago. Another “prostituted herself all the way to Texas,” where SRS staffers flew to pick her up and return her to her foster home – where she slipped out a window within 24 hours.

One Stowe area foster mother agrees, saying that from time to time she hears from her former foster kids who ran away. “Sometimes they call me from jail, not because they think I can get them out, but because they need someone to talk to,” she says.

These girls are “independent in their own minds,” says Judy Christensen, clinical and educational director at Woodside. “You can’t get to those kids by forcing them into a program they don’t want to be in. Involuntary treatment is involuntary treatment.”

What’s important is “giving kids options.”

Amy Bracken can be reached